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On Hill, Fen and Towpath (May Contain Bakewell Tarts)



 

Before I get into this blog I want to thank Louise Powell at Circular Wiltshire Walks on Instagram for this route. The route we followed is largely that put together by Louise.

 

I teamed up with my regular walking buddy and next door neighbour Stu for this walk. And what a difference a week makes. The week before I’d walked on my own not too far from this location on a boiling hot sunny day. On this day it was grey and cloudy and we were cursed with drizzle and persistent showers for much of the day. At one point I regretted not bringing gloves… in July! I blame Stu for the weather.

 

We began the walk from the little car park east of Martinsell Hill by the road that leads down to Clench and Wootton Rivers. Whilst I’ve walked over Martinsell Hill many times before I hadn’t been to the nature reserve at Jones's Mill and this struck me as a varied walk taking in hill tops, canal path and of course nature reserve. The descent from Martinsell Hill and climb back up via Giant’s Grave is quite steep so a level of fitness is required but it’s fine if you take your time… as we did.

 

From the car park we climbed steadily towards the iconic tree near the summit of the hill, tracking round above the earthworks that tumble down its south facing escarpment – a mixture of man-made features and soil creep.


Martinsell Hill

We followed the hillside curving gradually to the left and as we climbed somewhere near the top we came across some young trees protected by wooden fencing. As we approached we both detected a faint smell of almonds. Cheerfully Stu said there were only two things that he could think of that smelled of almonds – cyanide or Bakewell tarts! If you’re reading this blog it wasn’t cyanide. A little distance away one of the guarded trees was draped with what appeared to be bunting. We began to imagine (and hope) that it was a Bakewell tart stall where some old crone might try to tempt us with her wares. ”Bakewell tart, lads?” Sadly it was not to be and they proved to be prayer flags so we plodded onwards and upwards.

 

Not a Bakewell Tart Stall

Soon we reached the distinctive earthworks on the 289m/948ft summit on which the famous tree sits. This is the third highest point in Wiltshire and the views are spectacular. In the near distance across the valley I could see Easton Clump where I had been a week before. The summit is home to a 13ha/32 acre Iron Age univallate hillfort although the trees and hedgerows make it difficult to discern now. However all around the summit plateau there are stretches of earthwork and ditches, and we were to see more of these later in the day on the return leg. The summit tree is always adorned with ribbons and other votives. There was also a large candle in a jar standing by it with evidence of a fire pit.


Iconic Tree on Summit of Martinsell Hill

This is the most incredible place to visit at sunset and into the evening. I also wanted to rest on the bench just over the summit – a favourite place to draw breath. I wanted to pay homage to good friend of Hidden Wiltshire and international YouTube sensation Paul Whitewick. He proposed to his wife Rebecca on the bench (you owe us big time for that plug Paul). However all that remained of the bench was a concrete base and four holes where the legs had once stood. According to Paul the bench had to be removed as it had rotted! He assures me this is not a metaphor for his marriage.

 

Communing with Cattle

Having been denied a seat we continued westwards along the summit ridge which was ablaze with purple fireweed, stopping to chat to a group of cows pressed close against the other side of the fence. At this point we were on the Mid Wilts Way long distance footpath but we were looking for a footpath that would take us steeply downhill southwards to the distant Kennet and Avon Canal. Very soon we saw a sign on the corner of two fence lines stating that we had come to a permissive path. The actual and legal right of way was shown as being further along the fence line so we continued on for a couple of hundred metres to the point on the map where the right of way departs the Mid Wilts Way, turning left and straight down the steep slope. However in front of us was a rusty barbed wire fence. It was obvious a number of people had stepped over this in order to follow the right of way, which we also did. The meadow here is a sea of long grass and wild flowers and deeply rutted and we soon realised that we should have taken the permissive path that would have offered a more gradual descent diagonally across the slope on a more even path.

 

Whilst it is all well and good providing a permissive path to make progress easier, by their very nature permissive paths exist with the permission of the landowner. The existing landowner may be well intentioned but what if the land was sold?  A new owner could quite easily withdraw permission and meanwhile the legal right of way has been lost. It would be great if the current landowner could turn this permissive path into a legal path.

 

As we descended the slope we joined what was the old legal route. The grass was long and the terrain was difficult to discern but it was obvious that the lower sections of the route were in a deep gully – almost a hollow way.


Is this an ancient causeway to Martinsell Hill fort?

It seemed to that this was a route that had been worn and eroded over many generations and I wondered whether it could have been an ancient causeway from the Avon valley to the south up to the hillfort. Either way we enjoyed the tranquillity of the slopes where the long grasses and many common-spotted and pyramidal orchids waved like the waters of an ocean in the strong wind.



The path then enters a thicket on the lower slopes although route finding was easy. It seemed that this was a route not often used. Near the bottom there was a junction of paths and we struck left along a broad track heading towards West Wick Farm.

 

From the track can be seen the impressive mid 18th century West Wick Farmhouse and the even more impressive late 17th century thatched barn. It is possible get closer to these buildings by deviating onto a bridleway that heads west and around the farm buildings but we were happy to admire it from the tree lined avenue.



Tree Lined Avenue to West Wick Farm

We could see the thatched cob walls of what I assumed to be kitchen gardens together with a field of ox-eye daisies and the manicured lawns of the farmhouse that flowed down to the south. Passing around the electric gate that prevents anything larger than pedestrians reaching the farm the track becomes a metalled road, passing the minor road to Sunnyhill Farm and then Fairhills before crossing the canal.

West Wick Farmhouse

Here, by Trout Farm, we dropped down onto the canal towpath where we would head west for a while in order to reach Jones Mill Nature Reserve, but not before watching in astonishment from the bridge the biggest canal boat I have ever seen on the Kennet and Avon attempting to thread its way past a few moored boats. It wasn’t that it wasn’t just long but it seemed double the width of a normal narrow boat. It was even fitted with bow thrusters and its skipper was clearly having some difficulty keeping it in a straight line!


Stretching the definition of narrow boat

I love walking along canal towpaths especially when there are boat owners around to talk to. As we stood agog watching the oversized barge thread its way under the bridge, we got talking to a boat owner who was equally bemused. He said even his boat was 60ft long but the other was longer. But what was astonishing was the width. A standard narrow boat is typically around 7ft wide. According to the chap we were talking to the one we’d watched pass was around 12ft wide. This severely limits it in terms of the canals which are navigable for it. Two boats down were a couple tinkering on their boat. We got talking to them and they told us all about their boat. They had bought it as a shell and fitted it out themselves. They changed its name from Nosferatu (I don’t blame them) to Caroline and had been living on it for five years. However they had decided that age was creeping up on them and that it was time to sell. Very sad as the lady (I never did get their names) was the daughter of a trawlerman based at Hamble – boats were in her blood. I asked her husband if I could make a portrait of him and he seemed quite keen. He liked the result! Eventually we had to take our leave and continue on our way.


Caroline's Skipper

Not long afterwards we came to a gate from the canal towpath into Jones's Mill Wiltshire Wildlife Trust Nature Reserve. There was a helpful interpretation board here so we ventured in. After a long awaited coffee sitting on a log we took to the board walk that weaves its way through the reserve.


Jones's Mill Nature Reserve

The ground was relatively dry but this is fenland and there was deep mud and water either side so it’s important to keep to the boards. We had no route in mind so just followed the board walk in an anti-clockwise circuit across the fens. This is such unusual terrain for this part of the world. Where else can you find fens in Wiltshire? Everywhere there was white sweet smelling meadowsweet, purple valerian, and meadow cranes-bill as well as many other wetland flowers, rushes and sedges.


Board walk through the fen

Across the fen

Passing through a metal pedestrian gate we entered woodland where the path snaked its way through yellow flag iris (no longer in flower) and dense growth of great horsetail.


Iris and Horsetail

We emerged from the wood into one of the most stunning wildflower meadows I have ever seen, thick with common-spotted and marsh orchids swaying in the wind.





Common-spotted orchid

This was such a special place we decided to rest on a bench for an early lunch, admiring the view across the meadow back up to the heights of Martinsell Hill from where we had come a couple of hours earlier.


The persistent drizzle brought a chill to the air and it was time to leave. We found our way back to the beginning of the circuit across the fen listening to long-tail tits and goldfinches as we walked. We left the reserve through the same gate through which we had entered although we could have continued through the reserve westwards to leave by a different gate. I was thankful we didn’t do this as we would have had to have passed through a small herd of the notoriously frisky belted galloways! As we wandered along the canal I stopped from time to time to capture some images of some of the boats.


Canal Montage

On reaching the early 19th century grade II listed Pains Bridge we left the tow path and crossed to the north side of the canal. The bridge is old and little used giving us a sense of what it had been like here a hundred years ago.



By Pains Bridge

Pains Bridge

In front of us in the distance was the great hump of the ridge we needed to reach that contained the two hill forts of Giant’s Grave and Martinsell. Following what was now the White Horse Trail, on our left we reached the driveway of the modern farmhouse of Inlands Farm. The OS map is misleading here as the White Horse Trail shows as a fork left from the bridleway across the adjacent field. But the map shows it as being immediately after the driveway. In reality it is 100m or so further on the road where you will find a stile in the hedgerow to the left. The right of way here leads you across what were fields of barley on this day where the farmer had left a clear path through the crop.


Across fields of gold to Giant's Grave

Barley Fields

Reaching Bethnal Green (not that Bethnal Green!) we crossed Sunnyhill Lane, which we had seen soon after West Wick Farm, and continued across fields along their boundary. To our left was a large building on the edge of Oare that looked like a cross between a factory and a country house. I have no idea what this building is but I took a photograph of it with a field of blue chicory in the foreground. I cannot find any reference to this building anywhere so assume it is not of any historical significance.

 

Factory or Country House?

Crossing a bridleway we began the long climb up to Giant’s Grave. The path follows the shoulder of the ridge along the edge of a wood which forms part of the Rainscombe House estate. The rain had now returned with a vengeance and the strong wind drove it into our backs testing our water proof layers. As we climbed the views opened up behind to the west, and ahead to the east and south. On the slopes we entered the orchid line where all of a sudden common-spotted and pyramidal orchids began to appear in profusion together with purple clustered bell-flowers. This is a testing climb that needs to be taken slowly and we were glad to reach the summit trig point on Giant’s Grave, our thigh muscles burning up here at 250m.

 

Giant's Grave is an Iron Age promontory fort/settlement, protected on its eastern side by a single rampart and ditch. The steep western slope up which we had just climbed provides the perfect natural defence. To my eye this is a far more impressive fort than its much bigger neighbour along the ridge. Standing on what is almost a cliff edge looking west you feel like you’re on the edge of the world. Woodborough Hill, Picked Hill, Knap Hill, Golden Ball Hill were all visible through the murk to the west whilst swinging round to look south I could once again see Easton Hill and the clump.


Summit of Giant's Grave and Distant Woodborough Hill

Distant Golden Ball Hill and Knap Hill

Our ancestors must have felt that the world was at their feet as they stood on the summit. Photographs taken at ground level really don’t do it justice so I would suggest doing a search online for aerial photographs, some of which are truly spectacular. Your search will also take you to the Hidden Wiltshire blog which our own Gyn Coy originally wrote in 2018 – I have provided a link to it in this blog. Glyn was blessed with a beautiful sunny evening when he visited. His photographs are stunning so take a look.

 

After stopping to finish our lunch further along the ridge under the shelter of some trees, we set off once again still following the White Horse Trail and accompanied by the persistent, insistent call of an unseen sparrowhawk from the nearby wood above Rainscombe House. We stuck to the field boundary as the open access area of Martinsell Hill doesn’t extend to this part of the summit plateau but in the long grass we managed to turn north too soon and whilst we were on the boundary of the meadow we had strayed off the route. We should have gone further into the meadow where we would have found a path cleared through the wild grasses and flowers heading north. The correct route reaches and crosses the earthworks that run east-west across the plateau before heading north-west towards the Pewsey-Marlborough Road, but we approached from a different direction following the earthworks along the White Horse Trail from west to east through a ribbon of trees. Instead of following Louise’s route we continued along the bridleway by the earthworks towards Withy Copse. Louise shows a loop towards the road around the copse because she describes a sea of bluebells in the woods. But we were far too late for that so cut the loop out. However I have shown Louise’s route on the map should you go in the Spring.

 

The deeply cut path at the base of the earthworks is dark and other worldly, and despite the recent spell of dry weather it was boggy in places, churned up by mountain bike tyres and horses hooves. But it has a feel of Middle-earth about it with its fallen trees covered in moss and lichen.


Middle-earth

As you emerge from Withy Copse with open ground to north and south you get a chance to see what is left of the Iron Age hillfort on Martinsell Hill. At 13ha/32 acres this is a much bigger site than its diminutive neighbour at Giant’s Grave. I often wonder whether they were in use at the same time. It is described as a slight univallate hill fort and the single rampart bank stands between 1.5m up to 3.2m high with an outer ditch of from 3m up to 5m wide and 1m deep. According to Historic England “Slight univallate hillforts have generally been interpreted as stock enclosures, redistribution centres, places of refuge and permanent settlements”. The linear boundary to the north west along we which we had walked abuts the hillfort and is interpreted as an outwork to the hillfort by some sources. Our old friend Richard Colt Hoare excavated the fort it in the 18th or 19th century and found much pottery including 1st and 2nd century Samian and Savernake ware which came from nearby.

 


West Woods

Frankly there is not a great deal to see of the Martinsell Hill fort, the centre now a field of arable. But from the open ground looking north-west could be seen West Woods, the sun finally emerging to pick out the fields in between. We were now on the final leg and passing a fallen tree with a curious inscription carved into it we soon met the path along which we had started our walk many hours before, descending gradually to the car park.

 

A curious inscription

We really enjoyed this walk, despite the dismal weather. It would be truly memorable on a warm sunny day. Just make sure you are adequately provisioned with Bakewell tarts! The variety of a walk that included one of the highest points in Wiltshire, a canal towpath and a nature reserve containing fens rare in Wiltshire sustained our interest throughout the day. The walk as shown measures 11.67 kms/7.25 miles but if you venture into Jones's Mill Nature Reserve (which I highly recommend you do) you could add another mile or so depending on how far you roam. But equally you could cut out the loop into Withy Copse if it’s not bluebell season.

 

If you want to read a little more about Jones's Mill and see more photographs, Glyn wrote about it in his blog back in 2017. You will find a link below. Meanwhile thanks again to Louise Powell for this great route.



Martinsell Hill and Jones's Mill Nature Reserve Route Map (courtesy of Ordnance Survey

 

 

 

 

 

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